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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is Your Tradition Opposed to Discrimination?

Is discrimination a violation of your religious principles? Does a religious belief or principle ever supersede a rule against discrimination in the public sphere?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

Yes. it is a violation. I lean on the Biblical mandate: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as well as Jesus welcoming example toward the discriminated classes of his day: woman, slaves, lepers, children.  

Presbyterian have strongly supported the separation of church and state as institutions. We have resisted attempts to impose our beliefs upon the whole of society through use of governmental authority. 

If a religious organization promotes discrimination against a particular group but a nations laws prohibits such discrimination, that religious group may adhere to their beliefs within their religious sphere but in the public sphere they are subject to the governing laws. 

A religious group could, for example, prohibit women, or a certain race or sexual orientation from leadership within their own religious institutions. Their belief and practice however does not extend into the public sphere. 

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

It would seem that out of all the great world religions, those who embrace the Christian faith would be unalterably opposed to discrimination in the public sphere. The Lord Jesus Christ is hailed in Scripture as the Savior of the world (I John 4:14). His gospel is addressed to every nation under heaven, indeed to all God’s creatures (Matthew 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15). We believe in the unity of the human race and the equal humanity of all men and women before God (Acts 17:24-28). Intelligent Christians have learned long since to reject as false all appeals to Scripture to justify the enslavement of fellow humans and all schemes of racial segregation, and the oppression of one race by another. Our Savior in His time on earth was ridiculed if not vilified as “the Friend of publicans and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). The apostle Paul strictly charged Christians “to do good unto all men” (Galatians 6:10).

But in the past many Christians lived comfortably with racial discrimination in the public sphere, and now voices are raised in defense of discrimination against other minorities. Sadly my fellow Christians do not seem to realize that in practicing or defending such discrimination, they betray our basic beliefs and principles and alienate many people from our faith, including our own sons and daughters. If you serve the public, how can it be right to single out one class of sinners from all others and refuse to serve them? “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Christian businessman or woman, who then is worthy of the services you provide?

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

Yes, discrimination violates Catholic religious principles and goes against God’s design for human beings. The Second Vatican Council’s work, Gaudium et Spes, addresses this question. “Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be cured and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design” (Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decree, and Declarations, p. 194).

Yes, religious belief must supersede any discrimination in the public sphere. Gaudium et Spes, teaches, “it is for public and private organizations to be at the service of the dignity and destiny of humanity; let them spare no effort to banish every vestige of social and political slavery and to safeguard basic human rights under every political system” (ibid.).

The statement concludes, “and even if it takes a considerable time to arrive at the desired goal, these organizations should gradually align themselves with spiritual realities, which are the most sublime of all” (ibid.).

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

By “discrimination” I’m assuming you mean any sort of bigotry or racism. Discrimination in many other cases is quite appropriate. One virtue that Hinduism extols is “Vivek,” which means discrimination. And by this we mean the ability to separate the unreal from the real, the light from the dark. But as to the form in question, yes, to deny any individual the opportunity to prove his or her worth due to a preconceived understanding of who they might be is morally offensive. 

People with a superficial knowledge of Hinduism might think that caste bigotry is sanctioned by the religion. It is true that many have suffered this indignity. But contrary to what is often taught, this behavior is not scripturally sound. Some of Hinduism’s most revered saints and sages came from the lower strata of society. It is acknowledged by Hindu thought leaders today that the problem still exists, and efforts continue to erase this toxic blight. But to be clear, the Dharma teaches that each of us is an expression (as opposed to creation) of God. While outer circumstances, levels of intelligence, talents, abilities and disabilities may divide us in a superficial way, any ideology that would claim superiority of one group over another is antithetical to our faith.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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